Terrain Johnson and Colleen Contrisciane of Earth Force answer questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
Johnson: I’m a 6th grade student at Masterman Middle School in Philadelphia, and I work with Earth Force.
Contrisciane: I am a program coordinator with Earth Force, a national organization that aims to engage young people as environmental citizens.
What does your organization do?
Contrisciane: Earth Force does a lot of work with teacher professional development and youth development. We train teachers to execute our Community Action Problem Solving process in their classrooms. Once the students have identified some environmental issues they are concerned about in their communities, we give them the support to figure out what they can do about it. We try to encourage teachers and students to take on local issues where they can really see the impacts of their actions.
Some of our students have done amazing projects because they feel so empowered. We’ve had a fourth-grade class convince their school board to install a pervious blacktop when they were repaving the parking lot; other classes have lobbied their townships to clean waterways and repair sewer drains; one school created an urban tree farm on a vacant lot. It’s amazing what can be done once we let the students be in charge.
What are you working on at the moment? Any major projects?
Johnson: Earth Force has been working with my class on water pollution to see how we can make the water quality better in school and what we can do out of school to make sure water quality is good too. We have worked with the Philadelphia Water Department to find out how we can test our water, and we’re trying to see if we can get filters put in our school. We did a lot of research, and we found out that lead can be a big problem for the human body and the way water tastes. We are in the process of getting testing kits to see if our water is up to par.
Contrisciane: When there are three program staff working with more than 50 teachers, there is always a major project. Right now, we’re gearing up for our annual Youth Summit that will be held at the Philadelphia Zoo on April 19 and 20. The Youth Summit is a gathering of 600 Earth Force students and educators to showcase the projects on which they’ve been working.
How do you get to school or work?
Johnson: My mom drives me because she works across the street from the school. My school isn’t in my neighborhood.
Contrisciane: Most days, my job dictates that I drive. There is a lot of running between schools, and back and forth to the office and other events.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
Johnson: I started working on a neighborhood garden when I was 10, and that really got me interested in the environment. Then my teacher this year, Ms. Christian, found out that I had been working on the garden, and she thought it would be good for me to get involved with an Earth Force project. My goal is to start an environmental business that will make environmentally friendly products, and from the profits my company will fund projects that clean up places that other companies pollute.
Contrisciane: I studied special education in college, and I took a lot of earth science electives along the way. After school, I volunteered with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Bridgeport, Conn., where I worked on youth development and learned a lot about environmental-justice issues. Then I moved to Arizona to work at Anasazi, a wilderness therapy organization, which was a fantastic experience. It was amazing to see how “troubled teens” reacted to being out in the wilderness for six weeks. It inspired me to try my hand at teaching, which is definitely one of the toughest jobs out there.
As a teacher, I really wanted to make learning an authentic and moving experience for my students, and I wanted to use nature as a vehicle to do that. It was really hard to do, especially in an urban setting where more and more energy is focused on raising standardized test scores and administrators come down hard on teachers who deviate from the curriculum. I learned about Earth Force just before I was completely burned out. Now it’s my job to be a resource and support for teachers who want to engage their students in environmental problem-solving, and that is really exciting.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Johnson: I was born in the old naval base hospital in Philadelphia. I currently live in Philadelphia.
Contrisciane: I was born in the suburbs of Philadelphia. After some stops in Connecticut and Arizona, I’m back in the City of Brotherly Love and loving it.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Johnson: When I started trying to raise funds so that I could start a business. Since I’m a child, people didn’t look at me on a business level and didn’t think I could handle the responsibility that comes with it. That really upset me, but I was always told that the way you really are successful is by doing what people don’t think you can do.
Contrisciane: When I was beaten up by two of my students while I was teaching. But that wasn’t a wholly negative experience. They managed to knock enough sense into me to make me realize that there were better options for me outside of the classroom.
What’s been the best?
Johnson: The best was when I really got people to start to believe in me, like some of my family members. They could see that I really had my head on straight and that I really am serious about what I am doing. I was able to get a few people to make some investments for me now, so I can start a business in the future.
Contrisciane: One of the best happened recently at an alternative school where many of the students have dabbled a bit in the juvenile-justice system. The high-school class with which I work decided to implement a schoolwide paper-recycling program. The administration had a lot of questions about how it would work, so the students did a presentation on their plans for the entire staff. The presentation went so well that the students received 100 percent support from the staff and administration. When it was over, the students were exuberant because they knew they nailed it. Then one of them looked at me and said, “You know, that’s the first time I ever did public speaking outside of court!” Now their recycling program is in full swing. It’s a great feeling that we can offer these types of positive experiences for young people.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Johnson: When companies try to cover up pollution they have caused.
Contrisciane: Recently it’s been the politics of recycling in Philadelphia. Our recycling participation rate hovers around 6 percent, but a recent incentive-based pilot program from Recycle Bank has raised the participation rate to 95 percent in two neighborhoods. It’s saving the city money, and the residents love it. Yet the city almost cut the program! A number of neighborhoods and organizations are starting to rally for the program, so we’ll see what a little organizing can do.
Who is your environmental hero?
Johnson: Miss Walley from the neighborhood garden project, and Miss Megan and Ms. Colleen from Earth Force. They are all really trying to make a difference in the environment.
Contrisciane: Dr. Rajul Pandya, a former teacher (of course!). I took his atmospheric science class in college, and it really changed how I looked at human impacts on the atmosphere and the environment.
What’s your environmental vice?
Johnson: I always get people to drive me places because I don’t like to walk.
Contrisciane: I drive way more than I like to admit to.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
Johnson: I’m very athletic so I play a lot of basketball for a team in Philadelphia. I just finished reading The 48 Laws of Power. The book talks a lot about strategies for making business deals. I also really like to read BBC news because it has a lot of interesting environmental news that really helps me keep updated on the issues.
Contrisciane: Rock climbing! (Especially when it’s for a good cause …) I’m also involved with a lot of neighborhood organizing with East Falls Tree Tenders and Recycle Now Philadelphia. My current read is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
What’s your favorite meal?
Johnson: Caesar salad.
Contrisciane: Samosas and squash or lentil soup with a nice Belgian beer, followed by a gigantic, chewy chocolate chip cookie.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Contrisciane: I’m a vegetarian who only wears makeup on Halloween.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Johnson: The Delaware River.
Contrisciane: Right now, Wissahickon Park, part of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park system, is very near and dear to my heart (and to my front door). There is great hiking along the Wissahickon Creek, and even some rock climbing too.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Johnson: We need tighter regulations so that companies would really have to change what they put in the environment.
Contrisciane: Everyone should take some sort of environmental education class every five years, even if it’s just learning about the local watershed or a park’s ecosystem. As I’ve watched my students, they seem to want to take more responsibility with the more they learn about their surroundings.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
Johnson: Now, Carlos Santana because of the way he can play guitar.
Contrisciane: When I was 18, Radiohead, Tori Amos, Violent Femmes, Cat Stevens. Radiohead has remained at the top, but recently I’ve enjoyed listening to local bands like Slo Mo, The Curb, and Birdie Bush.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Johnson: Denzel Washington.
Contrisciane: Tracey Ullman.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Johnson: They should really just be more environmentally conscious and think about their actions.
Contrisciane: I would definitely encourage everyone to get involved with at least one community club or organization. It’s a great way to build community and meet people, and there’s always something fun and exciting happening.